What Is Torture?

Friday, 29 October 2010 10:11

Omar Khadr was not tortured. He may have been hooded, shoved, shackled to a wall, humiliated, threatened with guard dogs, told he was going to be sent to the Middle East for torture, forced into painful stress positions, and deprived of sleep. He may have been warned that another prisoner who had refused to co-operate had been gang-raped to death. But he wasn't tortured.

We've heard variations on this claim all this week, as Khadr's hearing in Guantanamo staggers to its wretched conclusion. American officials did nothing wrong, many say. Khadr wasn't tortured.

Is that true? There are two ways of tackling the question. One is legal analysis. International and national law is emphatic in forbidding torture, but it does not provide a precise, technique-by-technique definition of what is and what is not torture (or "ill treatment," a secondary category of acts that do not rise to the level of torture but are nonetheless forbidden). Agreements and precedents help clarify things. But still, there is plenty of room for argument.

But before we get to the law, we have to investigate the reality and answer the most basic question: What is torture?

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Omar Khadr And The Logic Of Tribalism

Wednesday, 20 October 2010 11:53

Omar Khadr, meet John Walker Lindh. John, Omar.

I probably don't need to tell John about you, Omar. You've been all over the news lately. But it's been many years since John made headlines.

In November, 2001, John Walker Lindh, an all-American guy from San Francisco, was captured while fighting Northern Alliance troops with the Taliban. "The American Taliban" had gone to Afghanistan months before 9/11, but still he was a real, live traitor. Righteous anger focused on one skinny, bearded man.

Omar, you're probably wondering why I've made this introduction since, in a sense, your situation couldn't be more different than John's. He was an adult who made a choice. You were a child, compelled to join the al-Qaeda death cult by your appalling father.

But there are important similarities in your cases, too. You were both barely alive when you were captured, for one. And you were both horribly abused.

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As campaign controversies go, it was minor stuff: Ottawa mayor Larry O'Brien accused the government of Ontario of funding a study to examine the feasibility of safe-injection sites in the province -- and of keeping the study under wraps until the Oct. 25 municipal elections were over. This was immediately denied. The province hadn't funded the study. And the study hadn't been released because it hadn't been completed.

O'Brien withdrew his accusation and the media mused about the damage this embarrassing performance would do to his campaign. And that was the last we heard of it.

Which is unfortunate. Because this little incident was only trivial in a political sense. Seen from the perspective of how public policy is made, it is devastatingly revealing.

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In 1995, when a right-wing anti-government extremist named Timothy McVeigh detonated a bomb in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, U.S. President Bill Clinton pointed a finger at the rhetoric of "culture war." Talk radio hosts and their audiences didn't simply disagree with fellow citizens who happened to be on the other side of the political fence, Clinton said. They despised them. They called them "enemies." They used vicious language. They had no sense of fairness and accuracy. They used any evidence they could get their hands on, however tenuous, to concoct wild stories of conspiracies that would "destroy America as we know it."

Clinton warned that a Petri dish filled with that stuff will grow some dangerous forms of hate.

It all seems so long ago.

Patients' anecdotes are not evidence

Friday, 10 September 2010 11:33

Judging by the controversy surrounding the refusal of the federal government to fund clinical trials of the "liberation treatment" of multiple sclerosis, the media and the public have forgotten one of the biggest health stories of the early 1990s. A reminder is in order.

The issue then was silicone breast implants. In the 1980s, case studies of women who got sick after getting implants started to pop up in medical journals. Their illnesses were serious -- mostly connective tissue diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

News of a lawsuit against manufacturers was widely reported. More stories surfaced in medical journals and the news media.

Lawnmowers, terrorists, and other major threats

Wednesday, 01 September 2010 14:28

Lawnmowers, terrorists, and other major threatsI do not wish to alarm the public, but I must urgently report the discovery of a disturbing fact: It seems that in 2006 -- according to the most recent StatsCan data -- two Canadians were killed by lawn mowers.

As I said, disturbing. And there's more. Much more.

Also in 2006, nine Canadians were killed in accidents involving kayaks or canoes. Three were killed by dogs. Six by hot tap water. Thirty-two drowned in pools. Fifty-four were killed by falls from ladders, while three more died after falling from trees. One person was killed by contact with a thorny plant. Another died after being stung by an unspecified "nonvenomous insect." Medical "misadventure" claimed the lives of 18 more.

What we can learn from Paul the octopus

Wednesday, 14 July 2010 14:04

Nobody takes Paul the Octopus seriously. We're too clever for that.

As most of the planet knows by now, Paul the Octopus, the star attraction at an aquarium in Oberhausen, Germany, was asked to "predict" the outcome of Germany's matches at the World Cup by choosing between two boxes placed in his tank. One box bore the flag of Germany; the other, the flag of Germany's opponent. Inside each box was a tasty mussel. Paul's first stop for a snack determined the winner.

Paul went eight-for-eight, including correctly picking Spain to beat the Netherlands in the final. He even nailed Serbia's upset win over Germany in the opening round.

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The thrill of righteous violence

Wednesday, 07 July 2010 14:03

The thrill of righteous violenceA few years ago in Moscow, I interviewed Edward Limonov, novelist and leader of the National Bolsheviks, a banned political party mostly famous for their party banner -- identical to the flag of Nazi Germany, but with the hammer and sickle in place of the swastika. I expected a vivid display of crazy. I got something much more interesting.

Formally, the National Bolsheviks, which Limonov founded, are the ideological blend of ultra-nationalism and communism their banner suggests. But that's misleading. Limonov's politics have shifted as often and as dramatically as the weather. He has even made common cause with Gary Kasparov's pro-Western liberals.

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On Skepticism and Climate Science

Friday, 04 June 2010 13:29

So you follow the news, maybe not as closely as you'd like, but you try to stay informed about major issues. And the latest buzz on climate change is unmistakable. The science is breaking up. There is no consensus. Climatologists were caught cooking the books. Forecasts of dire consequences have been exposed as nonsense. It seems that so much of what we heard over the past decade was hype and hysteria.

Climate change is starting to smell like the next Y2K.

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  • Source © Ottawa Citizen

The bad news bias

Friday, 27 March 2009 13:58

Two huge medical studies wrap up. Both assess the value of screening for prostate cancer. Both are published in the same edition of the New England Journal of Medicine.

One of the studies is American. It finds there is no difference in the mortality rate of men screened for prostate cancer and those who are not.

The other study is European. It finds screened men are less likely to die, although the difference is modest.

Prostate cancer is a hot topic and these are landmark studies. So how will the results be reported?

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